26 July 2022

CHIPS and Science: A Massive Investment in Federal Science

Julie Davis

Julie Davis American Physical Society (APS)

After more than two years of deliberations, alterations, and compromise, the Senate will vote this week on a 1,054-page innovation bill. Referred to as “CHIPS Plus” or "CHIPS and Science," the bill appropriates $52 billion for semiconductor R&D and manufacturing incentive programs, creates a temporary tax credit specific to the semiconductor sector, and most importantly for astronomy, sets ambitious budget growth targets for programs across the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  

The bill is likely to pass both the Senate and the House, bringing a conclusion to a long legislative process and new aspirational budgets for fundamental science agencies. If you are interested in how we got here, read the background section. If you’re short on time and only want to know what is important for astronomy, skip to the next section.  

Background on the Innovation and Competitiveness Packages

To understand how we got to a 1000-page bill on the seemingly odd pairing of semiconductor manufacturing and science research, let’s take a brief look the bill’s path the last two years.  

The bill started as The Endless Frontier Act in 2020, aimed at helping the United States stay ahead of foreign competitors. Key provisions of that bill would have created a new Technology Directorate at the NSF, supporting “use-inspired” research at universities and authorizing $100 billion over five years. This bill was criticized for directing so much funding to applied science at NSF, as many feared the culture would be altered and basic research would suffer. As the bill worked its way through the Senate, it ended up significantly diluted, with only a fraction of the intended funding for NSF and a whole host of loosely related provisions tacked on.  

This new version became the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), a whopping 2376-page bill that incorporated the $52 billion CHIPS for America Act for semiconductor manufacturing, authorizations for NASA, research security considerations, and a mind-boggling number of other manufacturing and trade-related provisions. The colloquialism “everything but the kitchen sink” doesn’t even apply here, because they literally included kitchen sinks! 

Screenshot of legislative text section titled "Stainless Steel Handmade Kitchen Sinks"
USICA bill text from Title IV, Subtitle B, Part I, Temporary Duty Suspensions and Reductions. This portion of the bill addresses American competitiveness with Chinese manufacturing. 


Meanwhile, the House had their own research science focused bills: the NSF for the Future Act and the DOE for the Future Act. Compared to the Senate bill’s focus on technological competitiveness, the House would direct research funding towards solutions for societal challenges like climate change, cyber security, and STEM education. In their own political “accretion” process, the House eventually bundled these and many more bills into their own innovation and competitiveness package, the America COMPETES Act of 2022.  

In June 2022, 107 congress members came together to conference the bills (i.e. reconcile the differences between the two versions). Both bills agreed on the $52 billion for semiconductor R&D and manufacturing, which survives in the final bill we will discuss below. The rest of the bill, however, was contentious despite broad bipartisan interest in improving U.S. capabilities in research and technology development relative to China.  

Though both sides agreed on the need for R&D funding, they had competing ideas for how to achieve the stated R&D goals. There was also significant disagreement over many of the issues that got tacked on to these enormous bills such as expedited visas for technically skilled foreign citizens, research security, and provisions unrelated to science such as trade and environmental policy. Ultimately, political maneuvering around other major legislation caused Republicans to threaten withdrawal of support for the bill. Fearing that semiconductor manufacturers would not wait much longer for the proposed investment, the Senate created a compromise bill now known as “CHIPS+.” The bill is a pared down version that maintains the appropriation of $52 billion for semiconductor R&D and manufacturing plus expanded funding plans for NSF, DOE, and NIST. 

Sand chart demonstrating different funding profiles for the NSF under CHIPS, COMPETES, and USICA.
Different strategies to achieve R&D competitiveness. Proposed authorizations under CHIPS+, COMPETES, and USICA from Jacob Feldgoise at the Carnegie Endowment. 


So, what does all of this mean for astronomy?

First, it is important to note that CHIPS+ is an authorization bill. While some authorization bills do mandate spending, others only provide guidance to the Appropriations Committees as to an appropriate level of funding for the program. The section of CHIPS+ covering semiconductor manufacturing has authorized $52 billion in mandatory spending. The rest of CHIPS+, which contains the funding boost for science agencies, is only guidance. This means that Congress has declared how much can be spent, but it will be left to Congressional appropriators to decide whether and how much of that funding increase materializes. 

Let’s look at the major astronomy agencies: NSF and NASA. 

National Science Foundation

NSF has been a core focus of the innovation legislation since the 2020 Endless Frontier Act. While the originally envisioned Technology Directorate with $100 billion in funding did not come to fruition, CHIPS+ still represents a significant potential increase for NSF. In March 2022, Congress approved the creation of the Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) as part of the FY2022 regular appropriations process. Much of the increased funding for NSF will go to the new directorate which, as described by NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, will focus on “[bringing] new technologies to market and [addressing] the most pressing societal and economic challenges of our time.” 

CHIPS+ outlines an NSF budget for the next five years, with a significant jump in FY2023 to $11.9 billion from the $8.8 billion appropriated for FY2022, followed by 8% annual growth of the topline. This growth would be a major achievement for US R&D if appropriated. However, as far as astronomy is concerned, the Research and Related Activities (R&RA) line that contains funding for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate and thus the Astronomy Division will experience less substantial growth. In FY2022, Congress appropriated $7.2 billion for R&RA, so the authorization isn’t growing non-TIP basic science more than the usual annual 4% increase that NSF has averaged over the last decade. While the overall NSF budget is authorized to more than double, the Astronomy budget will not double. You can see this in the table below in the R&RA w/o TIP line. 

The Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) line will also remain mostly flat after an initial 40% increase in FY2023. This is much better than the FY2023 President’s Budget Request of a 25% cut, but still challenging for future projects. MREFC is where construction funding for large projects for all divisions comes from. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory was built under MREFC, but so are things like oceanic exploration ships and Antarctic research infrastructure. The funding for MREFC will need to increase to make progress on the decadal priorities like the Extremely Large Telescopes and ngVLA. Large projects also require more funding for operations and maintenance, so CHIPS+ proposes an experiment in cost-sharing. A new Facility Operation Transition program will fund “10 to 50 percent of the operations and maintenance costs for major research facilities that are within the first five years of operation based on (1) the operations and maintenance costs of the major research facility; and (2) the capacity of the managing directorate or division to absorb such costs.” 

NSF Authorizations in CHIPS and Science bill. All values in millions of USD.
Line Item FY22 Appr. FY23 FY24 FY25 FY26 FY27
Topline 8,840 11,900 15,650 16,710 17,830 18,920
    R & RA 7,160 9,050 12,050 12,850 13,800 14,700
        MSRIP 76 55 60 70 75 80
        TIP n/a 1,500 3,350 3,550 3,800 4,100
    R&RA w/o TIP n/a 7,495 8,640 9,230 9,925 10,520
    STEM Ed 1,010 1,950 2,500 2,700 2,850 3,000
        GRFP   416 454 492 530 568
    MREFC 249 249 355 370 372 375
    Ops & Mgmt 400 620 710 750 770 800
    NSB 5 5 5 6 6 6
    Off. Insp. General 19 23 27 31 35 38


Other notable NSF provisions: 

  • STEM Education gets a big boost. The bill authorizes nearly double the FY2022 appropriation for FY2023, followed by a 25% increase for FY2024 before slowing down to an 8% annual increase. Many provisions for increasing access to STEM education, broadening participation, and engaging emerging research institutions are also included. 
  • On the topic of graduate education in particular, the bill calls for NSF to expand a requirement for funding proposals to include a mentoring plan for graduate students, supports activities to facilitate career exploration for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, creates a requirement for funding proposals to include individual development plans for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and provides supplemental funding to facilitate professional development activities.
    • The bill also increases the number of fellows supported annually by the Graduate Research Fellowship Program 
  • The bill calls for NSF to review and improve its procedure for assessing broader impacts in grant proposals. 
  • NSF grants will soon contain an ethics statement requirement: “the Director shall revise proposal instructions to require that ethical and societal considerations are to be included as part of a proposal for funding prior to making the award, where such considerations are applicable.” 
  • In order to improve research reproducibility, the bill calls for proposals to include data management plans and for the NSF to support open-data repositories and open-source software development. 
  • The bill will requires each Federal research agency to collect comprehensive demographic data on recipients of Federal awards and to report this data to NSF for summarization and publication (a decadal priority).
  • The bill authorizes NSF to support research into the impacts of satellite constellations on astronomy, as well as mitigating measures to protect ground-based observatories. 

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

A NASA authorization largely dealing with the human spaceflight aspects of the agency was added to the Senate version of the competitiveness legislation relatively late in the process. The House did not include any NASA authorizations in their version. The final version in the CHIPS+ bill text is relatively brief, and does not authorize specific funding levels for the agency. Instead, the version in the new bill focuses on policy issues in exploration, science, and other parts of the agency

Of note for astronomy is an endorsement of several priorities of the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, with “Sense of Congress” statements about: 

  • The importance of a balanced and adequately funded set of activities, consisting of research and analysis grant programs, technology development, suborbital research activities, and small, medium, and large space missions. 
  • The importance of Research and Analysis programs funded by the Science Mission Directorate for preparing the next generation of scientists, pursuing peer-reviewed, cutting-edge research, maximizing scientific return on missions, and developing future missions. 
    • The bill states that “The Administrator shall pursue the goal of establishing annual funding for Research and Analysis in the Science Mission Directorate that reaches a level of not less than 10 percent of the total annual funding of relevant divisions of the Science Mission Directorate by fiscal year 2025.” 
  • Endorsing the idea of “The New Great Observatories,” with the caveat that NASA takes care not to repeat the cost-overruns of JWST. 
    • The bill states that: “The Administrator should pursue an ambitious astrophysics program that meets the scientific vision of the astronomical community and the transformative capacity of technological innovation; and in implementing astrophysics research, in order to avoid the major growth in the cost of astrophysics flagship-class missions that has the potential to impact the overall portfolio balance of the Science Mission Directorate, the Administrator should seek to implement lessons learned from previous astrophysics missions.“ 

Finally, NASA has been given the green light to continue working on the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope. For planetary science, the absence of any mention of the planetary decadal survey is notable, though Astrobiology and the “search for life” receive endorsements. Interestingly, the bill also reverses a 1990’s ban on research on technosignatures (e.g. SETI). The largest section relating to planetary science, however, concerns Planetary Defense and Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). The bill calls for NASA to maintain the Office of Planetary Defense and move forward with the NEO Surveyor mission, to launch by 2026. Heliophysics was not mentioned at all in the bill. 

The NASA authorizing language is largely focused on human spaceflight, but the above points are positive for the astrophysics division even if they come with no associated funding. The omission of planetary sciences from the authorization is puzzling, but planetary has fared relatively well in the FY2023 appropriations season so far. 

Miscellaneous Items of Interest to Astronomy and Final Thoughts 

Three final items of interest to astronomers: 

  • A section of the bill text acknowledges the loss of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and recognizes the scientific, educational, and economic benefits of the telescope to the territory and to the world. The text “encourages the National Science Foundation, in consultation with other Federal agencies, to explore opportunities for strengthening and expanding the role of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico through education, outreach, and diversity programs, and future research capabilities and technology at the site.” 
  • A section of the bill deals with combatting sexual harassment in science. The section aims to “increase understanding of the causes and consequences of sex-based and sexual harassment…and to advance evidence-based approaches to reduce the prevalence and negative impact of such harassment.” 
    • The bill authorizes NSF to fund studies of sexual harassment in science, update the National Academies’ report “On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research,” create an interagency working group, and initiate two new studies on the issue through the National Academies and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).   
    • The bill authorizes $32.5 million for the NSF for the above actions.
  • The DOE Office of Science will also receive a large funding boost, which is positive news for Cosmic Frontiers projects in the High Energy Physics Division. The bill has specific funding authorizations for decadal priority project CMB-S4, starting at $10 million in FY2023 and rising to $80 million in FY2027. This project will be in partnership with NSF.

To summarize, the CHIPS+ legislation, if passed, will be largely positive for astronomy but not transformational. Though no funding is guaranteed unless appropriators oblige, this legislation represents an ambitious investment in the US scientific enterprise. Astronomy stands to benefit from the increases to the NSF budget, even if most money will go towards the new TIP directorate. The NASA authorization language holds many promising signs for future congressional support for astrophysics decadal priorities. In more uncertain matters, it remains to be seen whether the authorization to use NSF’s MREFC cost-sharing for facility operations and maintenance will ameliorate challenges for funding future ground-based astronomy facilities, and what a future NASA authorization may have to say about the planetary science decadal. 

You can read the Senate's own 40 page summary report on the bill's contents here. The Senate's three page summary outlining high-level goals of Division B, the science portion of the bill, can be found here


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